I once heard Malachy McCourt begin a commencement address memorable for its brazen wisdom. “If you’ve got one foot in the future and one foot in the past,” he said, “it means you’re pissing on the present.”
I was reminded of this vivid image as I was lamenting the tasks still on my To Do (set up an interview, draft an article) while anticipating a visit from my nieces and their kids. Lamenting the past or lamenting the future wasn’t going to help me get this post up. Writing requires being present in the here and now.
Over the years, I’ve developed three fail-safe strategies to bring my mind to bear on the work on my desk regardless of what’s going on at home.
- The first method is journaling. Sometimes, I just narrate how I arrived at work – telling the stories of the hurdles I had to jump, which can be anything from scheduling an appointment for my 91-year-old dad to mopping cat barf off the kitchen floor. Other times, I list all the things I need to do at the end of my workday. Listing these tasks helps me see which are essential and which can be delayed if I run out of time. I always run out of time. Happily, there’s no expiration date on housework, which never goes away.
2. The second method is to go for a walk. There’s something about the rhythm of walking that shakes loose my ideas and empties the noise in my head so I can hear the voice that will inform my prose. I’ve walked thousands of miles in pursuit of concentration. Walking has the added benefit of keeping me fit.
3. In the past year, I’ve been learning a third and highly effective method of calming myself into focus: meditation. I’d failed at meditation many times: I could barely sit still and I could never empty my mind. And then, in an outgrowth of my yoga practice, I’ve learned that I didn’t have to see a blank screen behind my eyelids; all I have to do is pay attention to my breath.
We breathe from the moment we’re born until the moment we die; it’s how we stay alive. Most of the time, we don’t pay any attention to our breath– until we notice we’re holding it, uncertain what to write next. That’s when we run low of oxygen, starving our brain and robbing our blood, paralyzing our lungs and forcing our pulse to gallop until we gasp.
But meditation – simply paying attention to inhaling, then exhaling – is naturally calming.
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Meditative breathing brings me back to the present. In the absolute present, I don’t worry about what I’m going to make for dinner, even though there will be fifteen of us at the table tonight. Instead, I can think clearly and mindfully about the task at hand (crafting this post) and make the best use of the time I have at my desk.
Do you have a method for focusing your concentration?